Saturday, November 19, 2011

Friends of Sport and Alcohol – Welcome to Belfast!

Belfast, a city that was known as the European Beirut, is now one of the most important touristic centers on the island of Ireland. Brief description? The locals are spending much of their time in pubs, while Catholics and Protestants are now conflicting just once a year.

Imagine a city where for nearly 100 years, half of the population is trying to massacre the other half. A city that was throughout the history ravaged by Vikings, plagues, fires, famine…A city where the greatest marine disaster in the history of mankind began…It’s hard to imagine such hell on earth, isn’t it? Have you ever heard of Belfast?

The capital of Northern Ireland is maybe not on the list of 100 most visited tourist destination but it is probably one of the most vivid places in the UK. This is, of course, due to the fact that less than two decades ago, it was carrying an epithet of European Beirut because of the war between the Irish Catholics (who wanted to be united with Republic of Ireland) and British Protestants (who were loyal to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II).

But today, 13 years after the Irish Republican Army laid down their arms, Belfast is almost perfectly safe city with the lowest crime rate in the UK and Northern Ireland. Incidents are rare, but Catholics and Protestants do get into conflict once a year, just to remind themselves of good old times. That usually happens somewhere in mid June when Protestants are marching through the city, celebrating the victory of King William III of Orange over Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. With that victory, the Protestants have strengthened their position on this part of the Island.

However, conflicts are rare these days, primarily because Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods are separated – often with real walls that have barbed wires.  There are twenty such structures in the city and the police often patrol near them. The British government has tried several times to remove these barriers, but the Catholic population insists that they remain. 

These walls are now decorated with many political sketches, slogans and famous murals. Thus, they have become a tourist attraction. For a couple of pounds, every taxi driver in Belfast will offer himself to take you to see them, and there are also bus tours specifically for that.

The second largest tourist attraction in Belfast is – shipyard. Of course, this is no ordinary shipyard. This is the famous Harland and Wolff shipyard where, in 1911, the biggest, most luxurious, most beautiful and, obviously, the most tragic ship in the world was made - the legendary "Titanic". 

One part of Belfast is even named Titanic Quarter. The place where the ship was built is still there, and it can be visited as part of tourist tour that costs around ten pounds. Large cranes with Harland and Wolff initials are still the highest structures in Belfast, and this year, in front of them, people of Belfast marked 100 years since the launch of "Titanic".

Person would think that those who claimed that they have built an unsinkable ship should perhaps not brag about him now, given that already on his first journey "Titanic" ended at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, taking with him more than 1,500 human lives. However, people in Belfast have a perfect excuse.

The Irish built the ship, the British sank it – is a line that you’ll find on pendants, lighters, magnets and so on. With this, the Irish are clearly pointing out that “Titanic” went from Belfast to Southampton, and on to New York, in perfect condition, but British crew, led by Captain Edward J. Smith, eventually destroyed him.

This kind of humor, along with conflicts on religious grounds that shook Belfast, are clear evidence that people from the island of Ireland, both Catholics and Protestants, have little in common with their neighbors from the British island. When compared to cold, measured, cynical and sarcastic Englishmen, the Irishmen appear as if someone has taken them from the Mediterranean and threw them to this piece of land in the Atlantic Ocean.

Restaurants and bars in Belfast are always full, no matter if it is working day or not.  Favorite leisure of any Irishmen in Belfast is watching football or horse races in a pub, with friends and a glass of whiskey or Guinness. The mentality of locals is sufficiently illustrated with the fact that one of their two airports is named after a man who is greatly remembered for saying:” I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.” That man was, of course, the best UK footballer of all times - George Best.

This unsurpassed master of football was born in Belfast. He played for the national team of Northern Ireland even though he was offered to play for England.  The fact that the airport is named after him, and that his picture is the first thing every traveler sees after passing the passport control, is only a fraction of the honors that his countrymen have reserved for him.

Best is an icon in Belfast (primarily for the Protestant part of the population). His image is the second most common theme of mighty murals for which this city is known.  In the first place are, of course, fighters of the Irish Republican Army on Catholic side, and loyalist heroes on the Protestant side.

And even though world class football isn’t played on the fields in Belfast and across entire Northern Ireland, this sport is the main pastime of the local population. There are several teams from this city that are competing in the IFA Premiership (national football league in Northern Ireland), but the locals are more fond of several English and Scottish teams. 

The most popular English club in Belfast is Liverpool, regardless the fact that George Best played for Manchester United. Other English clubs also have supporters in Belfast, particularly those from the north of England - Newcastle, Sunderland, Middlesbrough…Among the Catholic population, the most popular is Scottish Celtic. 

Besides football, the main entertainment in Belfast is - drinking. But beware, it is strictly prohibited to drink alcohol on the street - the penalty is £500.

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